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# A City is not a Computer

Last updated February 26, 2022

Reboot event with Shannon Mattern on her new book A City Is Not A Computer. Main summary and introduction on the Substack here.

## # Article Notes

### # Sidewalk Labs

Doctoroff, the founder of Sidewalk Labs: “What would a city look like if you started from scratch in the internet era — if you built a city ‘from the internet up?’”

Sidewalk aims to be the ‘fourth revolution’ of urban infrastructure where the first 3 were

1. The Steam Engine
2. Electricity Grid
3. Automobile

Constant theme of Doctoroff is that of constant move fast and break things of innovation.

### # ‘New Cities’

Is it possible to build ‘smart cities’ tabula rasa?

A sort of Collingridge dilemma where they are constantly developing and “versioning” much like a software product in an agile process.

### # Cities as information centres

Not only for transmitting information within a generation (breadth-wise) but also between generations (depth-wise): generational learning and Theory of Niche Construction!

“By means of its storage facilities (buildings, vaults, archives, monuments, tablets, books), the city became capable of transmitting a complex culture from generation to generation, for it marshaled together not only the physical means but the human agents needed to pass on and enlarge this heritage.”

“What are the non-textual, un-recordable forms of cultural memory? These questions are especially relevant for marginalized populations, indigenous cultures, and developing nations.” Especially related to quantization, how does always labeling and quantizing our data affect these forms of information? These forms cannot be reduced to ‘information’ nor can they be ‘processed’ easily within our digital systems. “Yet they are vital urban intelligences that live within bodies, minds, and communities.”

### # Computational Metaphors

Does this only appeal to us because of the recent obsession of computation as a metaphor?

Historically, we’ve analogized the brain (and the city) to technologies of our time. For example, we’ve compared the brain to “lumps of clay infused with spirits, as hydraulic or electro-chemical systems, as automata.”

The brain as computer is just the latest link in a long chain of metaphors that powerfully shape scientific endeavor in their own images.

## # Event Notes

• So much of how we interact with cities is through a computer; how can we reclaim cities for the people within them as people instead of just as data? What have cities lost in the transition to a data governed model
• How we define computation matters a lot
• Definitely something is lost in this ‘generalization’ of people as data
• A lot of ‘messiness’ in history (e.g. why people were evicted, etc.) especially in embodied knowledge
• Let’s think about what can’t be digitized and be put on a dashboard
• Technosolutionism in governing from just a quantized dashboard where the people responsible for making the decisions are so abstracted away from the actual problems that they need to solve
• What are potential solutions to this overly quantized technosolutionist approach? You mentioned indigenous knowledge and traditional knowledge
• Think more epistemologically broadly (how do we know what we know, are things inherently quantifiable or not)?
• Can we contextualize wisdom vs knowledge?
• How can we provide public alternatives to privatized social systems (e.g. public interest Google)?
• Examples of where knowledge goes beyond data and information
• e.g. Public Libraries: center for civic knowledge, trusted knowledge broker, community archives, public digital infrastructure, rather than just a place to borrow books
• these are definitely supplements rather than solutions
• Maintenance and Care
• What is the ‘dashboard’ in the proto-city?
• Source: Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allendes Chiles (by Medina)
• Feels like a lot of abstraction away from actual problems
• Potemkin village control room! Semblance of control rather than actual control/usefulness
• How can digital communities learn from libraries and librarians to prevent a Library of Alexandria moment?
• Rise of Amazon: do we need bookstores and libraries anymore? Yes!
• Primary point of internet access for underprivileged communities
• Not just about search and delivery of content, but about curation and serving the body not just the mind
• Values of libraries that digital maintainers could learn
• When you’re trying to optimize for ‘hits’ or ‘clicks’ feels very opposite to how libraries value knowledge
• What knowledge needs to be protected? What knowledge shouldn’t be universally accessible?
• Alternative networks: what could the internet have looked like? A writing on the bit: A People’s History of Computing in the US
• Reboot has an ethos of techno-optimism, how do we reconcile this with humanists who vehemently reject technology as a whole
• A lot of blanket rejection of tech and demonisation of the algorithm
• misses a lot of things, e.g. predicting weather, modelling climate change, etc.
• Rather than just bringing humanists in, starting the collaboration on a more neutral ground
• Make it as participatory as possible
• What can city governments do to help the ’exclusion’ of previously ‘unseen’ or minority groups?
• Design Justice approach, specifically acknowledge this bias and try to compensate (e.g. Data for Black Lives)
• We may not always be able to prevent ‘data harvesting’, and it sometimes might not all be bad! How do we fairly represent everyone?
• How do we control our own data and how we are presented within algorithms? Data sovereignty (e.g. GDPR?)
• Would smart cities be any different if they prioritized the citizens and participation at the get-go rather than as an after-thought
• Multiple definitions of smart cities (corporate extractivist approaches, civic approaches, improving democratic processes, open data, etc.)
• How do we manage data and data privacy?
• Thoughts on web3 and cities? CityDAO?
• Blockchain for decentralized mapping? Mapping in particular holds a lot of power for how a lot of citizens interact with the city
• Probably needs more time to read more to provide an intelligent answer
• Decentralizing on different axes? Architecturally decentralized vs logically decentralized vs politically decentralized
• Does the definition of city matter in this case?
• What is the value of proximity?
• Especially certain ‘focus’ groups e.g. Silicon Valley, why are these centralized?
• What about the future of work and more decentralized approaches to communities?
• Are ‘imperfect’ algorithms okay? What about if they are better than biased humans?
• Matter of looking at where the technology is useful, who is using it, how can we mitigate the risks using human-in-the-loop systems (if at all possible)
• Similar to scientific approaches to hypothesis, define these ahead of time so there is less incentive to ‘reclassify’ data to hit quotas
• Ground-up emergence vs Top-down governance for cities
• Historically a lot of data has been centralized regardless (e.g. libraries, town halls, etc.)
• Similar discussion to a an article thinking about hierarchies within cities: A City is not a Tree
• Success metrics on unplanned vs planned development
• How do we think about co-optation of civil design tools that are used typically by more unplanned/ground-up governance by corporations and more centralized governance models? (design justice)
• Fred Turner and the communes, New Communalist approaches to communities
• How can we best familiarize ourselves in new environments or be a ’tourist’ in the places we’ve lived in for a while?
• Think about the various networks that converge on their apartments
• Denaturalize physical environments, look at the infrastructure that makes it possible
• Take in familiar environments with new senses